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Published:November 22nd, 2006 03:16 EST
American Indian Musicians Make Many Kinds of Music

American Indian Musicians Make Many Kinds of Music

By SOP newswire

Washington -- American Indian musicians are composing and playing not only traditional music but also works for string quartets, chamber and symphony orchestras, ballet and opera as well experimental works, jazz, rap and reggae.

In popular culture, American Indian music often is perceived as drumming, native percussion and some chanting, " said Howard Bass, cultural arts manager of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, which recently hosted an unprecedented gathering of native composers and classical musicians for a series of classical concerts and recitals.

By introducing people to concert music, we`re obviously counteracting a stereotype -- and I hope we are providing the public with a broader view and some education that native people are involved in a great many contemporary and traditional art forms, " Bass said.

The four-day concert series, held in October, featured performances of works by native composers as well as Mozart, Mussorgsky and Ravel. Highlights included a recital by mezzo-soprano Barbara McAlister, a Cherokee, and a concert by the flautist R. Carlos Nakai, a Navajo/Ute whose work has been performed worldwide.

On November 18, the museum hosted the first concert by a wind and percussion ensemble playing music by American Indian composers. 

The concerts are part of the museum`s Classical Native program, which hopes to undo some popular stereotypes about American Indian music and also provide the artists with opportunities to share their works with the wider public, Bass told USINFO.

The works of some native composers offer few clues to their cultural identity, he said, but in other cases you can hear very clear references to the drums, the flutes and other instruments that we typically associate with native musical culture. "

These different approaches were evident when the works of four native composers were performed at the November 18 concert by the Wind and Percussion Ensemble of the University of Mary Washington (UMW), Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The concert piece that most strongly reflected American Indian traditions was Mewinzha (a long time ago), a musical depiction of the Anishinaabe creation story composed by Barbara Croall, an Odawa from Ontario, Canada, who spoke in her native Anishinaabe language as an element of the performance.  The sounds of drums and turtle shell rattles also played an important role.  Another piece, Grandmother Song by Brent Michael Davids, a Mohican, offered an introduction to the Mohican tradition of "sung syllables. "

A selection from Scenes from Indian Life by the composer and music educator Louis W. Ballard, a Quapaw/Cherokee, on the other hand, used a contemporary upbeat rhythm to tell a story of workers building a brick wall in Ballard`s back yard.

Craig Thomas Naylor, director of the UMW ensemble, commissioned the works of Croall and experimental composer and musician Raven Chacon, a Navajo, for the concert. In contrast with Croall`s traditional sound, Chacon " who often is described as an avant garde composer -- represents a very modern, contemporary voice, " said Thomas.

Chacon, whose composition Hasta`aadah premiered at the concert, said in an interview that he hopes every piece of music I`ve ever heard will come out in my music. " He added, What`s important to me is that other American Indian youth can see that we`re working in the field and that it`s possible to do this kind of music. "

Bass said the museum is planning another series of concerts in 2007 and also hopes to produce a compact disc recording of the music.

The Classical Native program is co-sponsored by a number of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the First Nations Composer Initiative, which was formed by the American Composers Forum to help foster the musical and artistic development of American Indians. (See FNCI Web site.)

More information on the Classical Native program -- including biographies of the composers and musicians as well as sound clips of their music -- is available on the National Museum of the American Indian Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: